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Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.

A blog by Leon Oudejans

The complexity bias

3 September 2018

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I like simplicity and dislike complexity. I only use one A4 for my blogs because it fits the attention span of most people. If I’m unable to prepare a drawing to illustrate my topics then I feel that something is wrong. To me, a picture also says more than a thousand words. It took training to get where I am now. However, using complexity is in our genes, literally and figuratively.

Achieving simplicity in my writing takes me a lot of time and effort. It’s much easier to use more text and just start typing. In such texts, we often focus on the What, When, Who and How. Understanding the Why is a prerequisite for my writing. In the words of a 2016 Medium article: “And here’s the problem…. it is complicated! Simplicity is not simple.”

Humans are biased towards selecting complex solutions, even when they have the option for a simple solution. Complex solutions suggest that more time and energy was spent while simple solutions suggest the opposite. It’s counterintuitive to sell a simple solution for a high price. Hence, consultants are often able to sell complex solutions at premium rates.

Farnam Street: “Complexity bias is a logical fallacy that leads us to give undue credence to complex concepts. Faced with two competing hypotheses, we are likely to choose the most complex one. That’s usually the option with the most assumptions and regressions. As a result, when we need to solve a problem, we may ignore simple solutions — thinking “that will never work” — and instead favor complex ones.”

This very interesting Farnam Street article explains why humans experience a complexity bias: (i) “the majority of cognitive biases occur in order to save mental energy“, (ii) “by opting for impenetrable solutions, we sidestep the need to understand“, (iii) “If you think something is harder than it is, you surrender your responsibility to understand it.” Note: italic markings are mine.

The responsibility to understand the problem you aim to resolve is often underestimated (eg, HBR). Once, I joined a company and was told that their newly acquired ERP system was a copy of a foreign competitor and would thus be implemented within 6 months (sic!). After many local change requests, it appeared that the foreign business model was very different, despite being in the exact same business. The very brief preparation had not seen the crucial differences.

Brexit is another example of the complexity bias. The lack of Brexit understanding and preparation is now creating complexities and a political unwillingness to opt for simple solutions, like giving back Northern Ireland. However, a majority of Leave voters, is “willing to risk the breakup of the UK to make Brexit happen” (eg, CU-2017Times-2018).

Interestingly, “in classical Hebrew, the language of the Bible, the word for simple and for perfect are the same, because perfection lies in simplicity not in complexity.” (Research Gate)

Some relevant quotes:

Confucius: “Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated.”

Ernst F. Schumacher: “Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius — and a lot of courage — to move in the opposite direction.” (GR)

Albert Einstein: (1) “If I were given one hour to save the planet, I would spend 59 minutes defining the problem and one minute resolving it.” (QI). (2) “I am not a genius, I am just curious. I ask many questions. And when the answer is simple, then God is answering.” (GR). (3) “The definition of genius is taking the complex and making it simple.” (GR)

Promised You a Miracle (1982) by Simple Minds

artists, lyrics, video, Wiki-1, Wiki-2

Note: all markings (bolditalicunderlining) by LO unless stated otherwise

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